The British parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee announced an inquiry
into the digital record industry last fall with a pretty broad scope of what it sought to investigate. Thus, a wide range of people was brought in front of the government, namely musicians like Nile Rodgers, heads of independent and major labels, the UK Musicians Union; representatives from Amazon, Apple, Spotify, SoundCloud (my employer), Twitch, and YouTube; British record industry trade associations; and the ministers themselves. Stuart Dredge at Music Ally did good work analyzing these panels
and sifting through the various arguments and proposals being put on the table. The range of speakers makes it hard to find real points of unity, so I’m going to cluster these talks into a few buckets.
The first would be the artists: the UK Musicians’ Union, PRS Music, the Ivory Academy, and the individual artists
who spoke were all very fairly supportive of the equitable remuneration proposal
that would treat streams on streaming radio and playlists akin to traditional radio. (This would allow for a 50/50 split between artists and labels on these payouts, rather than the current method, which is titled towards labels.) They also supported a move to the user-centric streaming model and for increased clarity and transparency from streaming platforms and labels. The core of the opinions expressed by these groups could be summed up in the #BrokenRecord campaign led by Tom Gray and the #FixStreaming campaign by the Musicians’ Union. These requests represented the most holistic point of view put forth in front of parliament, where critiques of the industry were matched with potential solutions. Artists speaking up were also prepared to hold a more combative stance
given that it was their lobbying and fighting that put this inquiry to the committee. The other clusters were more limited in their respective governmental demands.
Record labels were split across multiple days, allowing majors to speak
and then independents
. The one-week distance between their hearings didn’t obscure the fact that both groups were using similar talking points. Neither were all that interested in equitable remuneration and simply asserted it would be “bad for business” without much grounding beyond arguing that musicians would make more money. Independents also roundly dismissed the idea of the United Kingdom adopting an American-like termination of copyright, suggesting that it would undermine the value of investing in artists if labels cannot profit off of them over four decades after an initial signing. Record deals are life deals, otherwise, the business falls apart.
The indies also stressed a desire for tax breaks and suggested that that would help them compete against major labels. An almost laughable idea when one steps back and thinks about the current highly globalized world of recorded music. Certainly can’t blame them for requesting tax breaks when given the government’s ear. Neither were all that interested in user-centric streaming and parroted the questionable talking point of it potentially costing too much money (for who exactly?), though UMG and Beggars Group were at least open to the idea. As I wrote earlier this year
, the term “independent” might’ve held value decades ago but in 2021 there is a blurring of interests and these hearings made that clear.
The tech companies that were cross-examined
lacked a real set of demands for the government. Instead, many just appeared to be ready to parry any potentially difficult questions and make sure not to get a bad soundbite. Thus, the most fun session
was with SoundCloud, Twitch, and YouTube, and that was mostly just to see YouTube repeatedly state how much money they’ve made the British record industry as if that was the inquiry’s singular concern. They, and others, repeatedly mentioned how much money the industry made since their the arrival, and also that the threat of piracy is always peeking around the corner if subscription prices rise too high, despite there being almost no evidence of this when Spotify, Netflix, or other firms increased subscription rates. Aside from YouTube, none of the tech companies faced overly harsh questioning that couldn’t have been evaded with the talking points mentioned above. Now that the hearings have ended, everyone will wait for an official recommendation from the DCMS – but that hasn’t stopped industry groups from lobbying.
Last month, a number of British musicians including Chris Martin, Jimmy Page, a Gallagher brother, Kate Bush, and many other big names signed a letter to support equitable remuneration for musicians
. In March, the Musicians Union released a favorable write-up
on the hearings, which tipped my eye to see just how closely the DCMS recommendations hue towards the #BrokenRecord and #FixStreaming campaigns, since they’re really the only groups that put out a comprehensive view on what should happen to the industry. Labels want tax breaks but otherwise seem fine with the government continuing to pay little attention to how it treats artists, and streaming platforms appear uninterested in even conceptualizing how to interact with the state. But, there’s more that could be out there.
Earlier this year, musician Rebecca Ferguson put out an online petition
for the creation of a regulatory body to overlook the industry. Tom Gray tweeted in support of the idea
and seconded the need for an ombudsman-like figure alongside audits and for regulation of the industry. These particular demands stuck out to me. Even though this isn’t explicitly articulated by the artists who spoke to parliament nor by the other artist groups, this is a great opportunity to introduce more permanent duties for the government to examine the record industry. There’s little thought that the music industry is “fair” or is looking out for the best interest of artists, so why not solidify that music can be a strong industry and
still not be above government reproach in this moment of heightened awareness? The committee’s recommendation may not be so bold but it speaks to the organizing work and general frustration with the industry that such expansive possibilities are on the table.